Aim Our aim was to quantify climatic influences on key leaf traits and relationships at the global scale. This knowledge provides insight into how plants have adapted to different environmental pressures, and will lead to better calibration of future vegetation–climate models. Location The data set represents vegetation from 175 sites around the world. Methods For more than 2500 vascular plant species, we compiled data on leaf mass per area (LMA), leaf life span (LL), nitrogen concentration (Nmass) and photosynthetic capacity (Amass). Site climate was described with several standard indices. Correlation and regression analyses were used for quantifying relationships between single leaf traits and climate. Standardized major axis (SMA) analyses were used for assessing the effect of climate on bivariate relationships between leaf traits. Principal components analysis (PCA) was used to summarize multidimensional trait variation. Results At hotter, drier and higher irradiance sites, (1) mean LMA and leaf N per area were higher; (2) average LL was shorter at a given LMA, or the increase in LL was less for a given increase in LMA (LL–LMA relationships became less positive); and (3) Amass was lower at a given Nmass, or the increase in Amass was less for a given increase in Nmass. Considering all traits simultaneously, 18% of variation along the principal multivariate trait axis was explained by climate. Main conclusions Trait-shifts with climate were of sufficient magnitude to have major implications for plant dry mass and nutrient economics, and represent substantial selective pressures associated with adaptation to different climatic regimes.